By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Two years ago, 19-year-old Sachse resident Dondria Nicole was just another kid with a camera hooked up to her computer. And 'cause she liked to sing, she started recording herself doing so. Then she created a YouTube account for her friends to watch.
Pretty simple premise, right?
Now, fast-forward the clip by two years or so, and you'll find a modern-day Cinderella story: Nicole's amassed more than 1.3 million YouTube views and finds herself at the forefront of a major-label promotional push. She's signed to So So Def, superstar producer Jermaine Dupri's Island/Def Jam subsidiary, and her debut album, Dondria Vs. Phatfffat is set for release next month (Phatfffat is Nicole's YouTube username—based on the fact that, despite her slender build, she thinks she eats like a pig).
Excuse me? How'd this happen?
Nicole's not even sure herself. Last week, she sat down and ran through a gamut of in-person and over-the-phone press interviews, junket-style, in Garland, trying to make sense of it all. Problem is: She can't—mostly because the cat-eyed, now-21-year-old Nicole can't believe it herself.
"I guess I'm having fun," she sheepishly responds with a shrug, when asked how she's handling all the attention.
Maybe she's just handling it all a little skeptically. And, to her credit, she's been handling herself that way since the start. When Dupri first reached out to Nicole through a MySpace message aimed to introduce himself, Nicole didn't even respond—she thought it was an elaborate hoax. Only when Dupri reached her by phone did Nicole start buying into the possibility that someone as well-known as Dupri, who has worked with Usher, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z and Janet Jackson, among others, would take an interest in the videos she'd uploaded of herself singing SWV and Ciara covers.
"I was like, 'Oh my God! I can't believe I've been ignoring him!'" she says, laughing at her own audacity.
And a few months later, she was signed. It's that simple. Shocking, I know.
But it makes sense: While other labels aim to market their acts through viral Web campaigns, doesn't it make sense for a label to sign a talented act that already has the whole viral business well in hand? Nicole's certainly got that—that's how Dupri and his A&R reps came across her in the first place—and now So So Def's jumped on board. Of the 33 videos Nicole's YouTube channel hosts, the last nine are related to promoting her upcoming album. The challenge, Nicole says, is keeping her YouTube fans, finding new ones and fending off the people who hate on her YouTube-to-major label success.
"It's a lot of pressure," she says. "I brought my fan base to the label as opposed to the other way around, so initially, they're the focus. But what about the rest of the world?"
That's the trick. Because of the modesty surrounding her rise, a lot of people are dumping on Nicole's signing—even friends of hers in Sachse who are wondering when their major-label signing's gonna come.
"Some of them are happy for me," she says. "Those are my real friends. The others just get on my nerves."
That includes, by the way, the anonymous commenters who've taken a disliking to her on Internet message boards.
"I try to ignore it," she says with a laugh. "My patience is very, very short—but I've been working on it."
And she's still finishing the album despite its fast-approaching release. That's a result of Dupri not wanting to lose out on Nicole's YouTube fans before they forget about her. And why, this week, along with her Garland press junket, Nicole found herself tagging alongside Dupri at the BET Awards.
Overwhelming stuff, maybe, for a girl who just recently was singing for Internet trolls only?
OK, maybe a little: "It's a nervous excitement," Nicole says. "Anxious but scared."
Luckily, Nicole seems to have the chops to back up this push. Her first single, "Can't Stop," comes straight out of the Beyoncé vein. Give her another two years and, who knows, we might be holding her up there with the other great female singers to come out of Dallas—ladies named Edie, Erykah and Norah.
The first single would seem to imply as much. In any case, Nicole promises she won't be changing anytime soon.
"People ask me all the time if the money and fame's gonna change me," she says. "I feel like I'm always gonna be cheap. Or frugal. Yeah, frugal's the better word."
Speaking about anointing musicians as stars, you'll notice something extra in this week's Observer: It's our 2008 Dallas Observer Music Awards ballot! (How's that for a seamless transition?)
After considering your feedback on last year's awards, we made some changes to the nomination process. This year, we ran things Academy Awards-style and got feedback from 55 "distinguished" members of the local music scene—musicians, producers, booking agents, label reps, etc.—and compiled their nominations to create the ballot for this year's awards. The result is a nominee list that we're quite proud of; it's an interesting mix of new and old acts from various parts of the region. Better yet, because we asked the people most involved in the local scene for their input, you can be sure that it's truly representative of the best that Dallas' and surrounding areas' music scene has had to offer since our last awards.